Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Portmuck - the end of the Cattle Trail

Sailing into Portmuck harbour from Scotland takes you past the small Isle of Muck - seen here with the north end of the Gobbins Cliffs in Islandmagee behind.

The only landing place on the island is on the landward side, and it was here that smuggled horses from Scotland were landed out of sight of any patrolling customs and excise boats. On the Gobbins coast almost opposite is a cave known as 'horse cave' where the smuggled horses were also hidden. The inward horse trade was the counterbalance to the outgoing cattle boats destined for the great drove roads of Scotland.

Looking down on the island from the high ground in the middle of the peninsula, the small harbour of Portmuck can be seen to the left, hidden from the isle by a small headland with farm buildings on top.

This scene has hardly changed in 100 years since the old photograph below was taken.

The ruins of Portmuck Castle are only the base walls of a stone tower built in the 1590s (see earlier posts "The Big Picture: Eslers and the 'Scotch' Cattle Drove Roads of mid Antrim", and "Dalways Bawn: The Earl of Essex's Plantation in east Antrim). It sits among and behind the farm buildings on the headland, so that it could overlook both the harbour and the 'sound' of water between the headland and Muck Isle. The large building down at the harbour was the Coastguards Building, which in the 1800s replaced the castle as the customs control center for the control of livestock imports and exports.

This was the end of the cattle trail as far as the old drove road from Ballynure, across the Commons of Carrickfergus and past Dalway's Bawn, but it was the beginning of the horse trail in the opposite direction, for Ballynure's horse fair was one of the biggest in the county.
When I was a boy, the shore opposite Muck Isle could only be accessed by climbing over the limestone rocks at the headland (there is a footpath now).

From this headland, where the castle ruins are, the shore is a limestone platform of white rocks which contrast completely with the black basalt rocks of the Gobbins cliffs. The castle wall rises straight from this headland on the Isle of Muck side, so that it had a clear view of the 'sound' and the causeway that linked the island. This natural causeway can be waded across at low tide, and of course, livestock could be driven across at this point too.

There is a very interesting account of how (because of the smuggling trade) the locals were unwilling to admit, even to Scots 'plantation' landlords, that there were any horses 'to be had' in the district in the early 1600s. The source is a letter of 1631 from J. Montgomery of Newton (Lord Montgomery of the Ards in County Down) to Archibald Edmonston of Red Hall, Ballycarry. Of course there were plenty of horses about, but the fact that they were all busy working sounds like a typical Ulster-Scots bargaining tool to effect a sale at an extortionate price.

"J. Montgomerie to Archibald Edmonstone of Duntreath. Requesting the loan of some horses.

1631, April 21st, Knockfergus [Carrickfergus]. - 'Worshipfull and loving coosen, It hathe so falne out that in my passage from Dunstey I have been forced to land far doun in Iyeland McGhie [Portmuck, Islandmagee] so as I ame forced to employ my freinds for supplie of horses, and in regarde the countrey is upoun the heate of there labour, I must intreate yow for the laine of some three or four garreins [small work horses] for the transporting of myself and company to the Newtoun [Newtownards] ... Signed, Montgomerie

[Reply on same page] Right honourable my, I sent your Lordship thrie garreins and for this present I have non els exept my gray hors that rane ane cours yeisterday, and I dar nott ventur him so schoune efter the race. My Lord, I tak very unkindly that ye suld have gone by this cottage, always I hop your Lordship vill mak ane amends. Thus in quhat I am able I remain ... Signed, Ar. Edmonstoun. "
Of course, I should have repeated in this post that the names of Portmuck and of Muck Isle are both derived from the Irish Gaelic word for 'pig' (muc) and the names have nothing to do with the state of cleanliness of the place! But it also shows that the so-called 'cattle trail' was frequented by other livestock as well - particularly horses and swine.